In 2000, only five NFL teams stayed in their own practice facility for the rigors of preseason training camp, this year 21 teams are staying home for camp, with the latest being the 49ers getting full use of their new facility in Santa Clara. In recent years both the New York Giants, returning to the newly-named Quest Diagnostics facility and the Philadelphia Eagles leaving Lehigh University for the NovaCare Center in South Philly, have joined that trend as well. Given the investment teams make in building facilities, the cost associated with travel, and the ability to showcase their players and their brand in front of hometown fans who don’t need to travel hundreds, if not thousands of miles, to see their favorite players early on, the idea of staying home seems like one that is smarter and smarter for both the on and off field growth of an NFL team.
Ironically one of the teams that traditionally stayed home years ago was the Jets, who trained year round at Hofstra University on Long Island. The team was one of the first to open training camp to its fans, and in doing so helped build long-standing credibility with its core and casual fans who would turn out in droves to see their favorite players. It was only in the last 10 or 15 years or so, since the teams’ full migration to New Jersey, that New York went on the road for training camp, which was held in Cortland, New York. Originally the idea made great sense, as their new training facility, the Atlantic Health Care Facility in Florham Park, New Jersey, was not yet finished. Now however, with one of the best facilities in professional sports, Gang Green has returned home to join the Giants and stays put for the summer.
Why? It makes great business sense. Watching the first episode of Hard Knocks this week, you see the distractions that the Los Angeles Rams are having…like no air conditioning in the dorms at California-Irvine, that give you a feel for what happens when you do not have a totally controlled environment (that will change when LA gets a new facility in three years). Teams are all about year-round routine, and keeping players and staff together in a first class environment that the team has invested millions in helps strengthen ties to the community and to each other. Even with the best of college facilities and the ability to physically transport thousands of pounds of equipment from New Jersey to Cortland, the experience is still not 100 percent the same. The idea of “getting away” to focus on training camp in an era where social media rules, and players are not used to such isolation is quickly passing by…no one can really hide any more, and the creature comforts the teams take to make their facilities best in show make staying home more of a natural these days than ever before.
Then there’s the off-field question of ROI. Teams are doing everything possible to hold on to and cultivate brand and fan relationships in times that are still somewhat challenging for the discretionary dollar. Moving a team hundreds of miles away, which limits access and in some ways keeps the team a bit out of mind of the consumer and the team’s core brands, can slow growth and affinity with the team at a time when access is probably greater than at any other time of the year. Granted most major media will travel wherever a team trains, but keeping the team closer to home does ensure even more consistent coverage, which re-building teams like the Jets covet. On the brand side, a company like Atlantic Health Care, like Quest Diagnostics, has spent a good amount of money associating itself with the Jets brand, and to have SUNY-Cortland in the press vs. their name during the preseason is a bit of a disconnect. Other brands also love more activation with the team and its thousands of fans who go to training camp so staying local gives them a much better opportunity to grow the partnership in a time when access is so key to a relationship.
Yes there is some perceived value to getting away for the three weeks. It may help grow the team brand away from its core and it certainly puts dollars back into the small town where the teams go. However for the long run, from a business and player development standpoint, the trend of not travelling for training camp is a growing one, and one which more teams are going to consider and use. There is no place like home, especially with the billion dollar investment of an NFL team.